'Rangers Inside And Out'
By Sean Hartnett
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Can you put a price on chemistry? That's what New York Rangers general manager Glen Sather pondered when Brandon Prust asked for a raise following three seasons of gutsy performances in a Rangers uniform.
For Sather, it was an open-and-shut case. Sather was unwilling to come anywhere near the four-year, $10 million contract that Prust eventually signed to join the Montreal Canadiens.
Sather drew a line in the sand at the 2012 NHL Entry Draft.
"I don't think we're going to get that one done," Sather stated in June. "I like him, the team likes him, everybody likes him ... but I'm not married to him."
On the other hand, John Tortorella was indeed married to the gritty aspects and versatility that Prust provided for the Rangers as a fighter, physical enforcer, penalty killer, energy player and all-for-the-cause warrior.
In each of his two full seasons in New York, Prust played far beyond the pain barrier to take part in all 82 regular-season games in consecutive years, and he proved to be a player that Tortorella could always lean on. Often you'd see his arm in a sling after a game or something else visibly wrong with Prust, but it was never a problem. He would always be in the lineup for the next game.
That's why it was curious to see Tortorella sidestep the opportunity to publicly acknowledge Prust's achievements as a Ranger on Tuesday before Prust took the ice at Madison Square Garden wearing the visiting uniform of the Canadiens.
Tortorella didn't go into detail, simply describing Prust as "just a guy in a Montreal uniform."
I'm sure if you hooked Tortorella to a polygraph director test, he would have failed. After all, Tortorella declared, "I love the guy" when the Rangers were packing their bags following their 2012 Eastern Conference Final exit to the rival Devils.
Prust Deal Paying Off For Montreal
It's no coincidence that the Canadiens (11-4-1) are sitting in first place in the Eastern Conference, while the Rangers (8-6-1) are in ninth place, on the outside looking in. Much of Montreal's success can be pinpointed to the addition of Prust, who gives the high-flying Canadiens a different look by adding grit and physicality that wasn't there before.
Montreal Canadiens captain Brian Gionta was more than happy to see Prust don the famous sacred flannel of the Canadiens, or as Québécois say, "La Sainte-Flanelle de Les Habitants."
"We knew coming in he was a guy who could play, help out," Gionta stated.
Prust has fit in with the Canadiens like a glove, as Gionta preached the difference he has made for the Habs and the ease in which Prust assimilated himself into the Canadiens' locker room.
"He's a great team guy," Gionta said. "He fits in extremely well. Since he's been here, it's been like he's been here for a few years. He's a great addition for us."
Prust Enjoying New Life In Montreal
Before the game, I caught up with Prust and gauged his feelings on what it was like to represent New York and his reaction to Rangers fans describing him as a heart-and-soul player. He was definitely taken aback by the praise he received from New Yorkers.
"It's definitely flattering," Prust responded. "I think a lot of fans enjoy that type of player, when they come in and work their butts off and give good, honest work. It's well-respected, especially by New Yorkers."
Rangers fans made their feelings clear when Prust returned to the Garden for the first time as a visitor by cheering for him when he touched the puck. Some Blueshirts fans even went as far as applauding Prust's game-winning assist in the third period.
Now, Prust has made the jump from one historic Original Six team to another.
One of Prust's first experiences as a Canadien was the torch-passing ceremony on opening night at the Bell Centre. One by one, legendary captains such as Jean Beliveau, Yvan Cournoyer and Henri Richard marched down the steps of the arena holding torches to signify the Canadiens' traditions and club motto: To you from failing hands we throw the torch, be yours to hold it high.
Beliveau, one of the most distinguished and celebrated players in NHL history, handed the torch off to Gionta, who then passed it to Prust as the Canadiens were introduced on opening night. It was then Prust's turn to pass the torch to the next teammate who skated toward center ice.
Weeks after the Canadiens' home opener, Prust was still somewhat overwhelmed by the experience when I asked him about seeing all the legends in Montreal on opening night and sampling the proud culture of the Canadiens firsthand.
"That was a pretty cool experience," he stated. "It was a good way to start off my career in Montreal. It's one of the reasons why I signed with that team. You have one of the greatest franchises in the history of any sport. It's fun to be a part of."
Prust's role has changed with the Canadiens. He's expected to shoulder more of the offensive workload than he did in New York, while still bringing the energetic and physical trademarks that Rangers fans admired him for.
It was Prust's feed to skillful American rookie Alex Galchenyuk that pulled the Canadiens ahead. 2-1. on Tuesday night as Montreal eventually defeated the Rangers, 3-1, and increased their winning streak to five consecutive victories. Prust likes what he's seeing from his new teammates thus far this season.
"Our team has made some good changes over the offseason," Prust explained. We're playing good hockey right now. We're just making sure we're focused one game at a time."
Still, Prust understands the frenzied expectations in Montreal, as he did in New York when the Rangers were expected to compete for a Stanley Cup last season. This year, there's genuine reason for optimism in Montreal, where the Habs are searching for their first Stanley Cup since 1993.
"That's what we're shooting for," Prust declared. "We want to get that 25th Stanley Cup."
The whole experience of playing in Montreal is a unique one from all other NHL cities. It isn't just the success and traditions that separate the Canadiens from every team in the league, but also the European-type culture of the city and the need to be bilingual.
"It's coming along, but it's a slow process -- I'm not very good yet," Prust said of his understanding of the French language. "If I go into a restaurant, I can read it. It's more like greetings, like saying, 'How are you,' and all the little things."
For Prust, his biggest adjustment is learning the finer points of the French language.
Meanwhile, the Rangers are struggling to replace the multi-dimensional void left by Prust's absence.
Did the Rangers underestimate Brandon Prust's value by allowing him to join Montreal? Share your thoughts below and send your tweets to @HartnettHockey.
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